Are You Honest to the Core?

Four “little” ways people rationalize dishonesty—and a big reason not to.

A few weeks ago, a 63-year-old widow sat in my office sobbing. For more than forty years she had helped support her family of five children by working part time as a nurse. Now her husband had died, and, desperate for help in arranging her financial affairs, she had turned to a trusted neighbor in her ward for advice.

She thought she was in luck because the neighbor said he was an investment counselor. He promised her that in addition to helping her meet her financial obligations, he could make her a lot of money if she invested in unmined titanium. The investment was safe, he said, and a high return would come quickly if she invested her money right away. Best of all, she could retire earlier and more comfortably.

The woman gave the man her $87,000 in savings. With the money in his pocket, the man left town to check on the mine—and hasn’t been seen since. Instead of doubling her money in six months, she ended up losing it all.

The woman had succumbed to her unquestioning trust in a well-liked neighbor and a deal “too good to be true.” Her dream of getting just a little bit ahead became a nightmare. Now, unable to retire and enjoy time with her grandchildren, she is working just to put bread on the table.

This sister’s experience causes me great concern—not only because of my position as director of the Securities Division of Utah’s Department of Commerce—but also because of my Church membership. This woman had been intentionally defrauded by someone she believed to be a pillar of her ward.

What a contrast her story is to the examples of honesty I heard during our ward’s Primary program a couple of years ago. During a year-long emphasis on the theme of honesty, our Primary children were encouraged to be “honest to the core.” One young boy told of returning excess change he had received after buying some gum. Another had mistakenly received more prize tickets from an arcade bowling machine than he had actually won; he turned them back in. I wondered why the Primary lessons that seemed to be taking root in the children hadn’t borne fruit in the man.

Tragic tales of personal losses have made me pause to consider the strength of our convictions as members of the Church. I fear that negative reactions to the dishonesty of a few Latter-day Saints might call into question our collective commitment to unfailing honesty.

The following examples typify the dishonesty traps into which I have seen Church members fall. All names have been changed.

  1. 1.

    People compromise their honesty when they think they can get something for nothing.

    Sally received in the mail what is commonly known as a “chain letter.” It included a list of ten people and promised her enormous wealth if she would send a dollar to each person on the list, delete the name from the top of the list, and add her name to the bottom. Then she was to send the list to someone else who would keep the chain intact.

    Sally read that her name would move up on the list as it was sent from one eager participant to another. She read testimonials from past participants who praised the success of the letter and were now basking in riches beyond their collective imaginations. She mailed off ten separate dollar bills, sent the letter to a friend, and waited. But she never heard from her friend, never saw the list again, and never found her good fortune.

    Sally hadn’t intended to be dishonest, but she had participated in a program that is illegal because it constitutes gambling. It is dishonest because the only way you can earn money is to induce others to give you money and to find others to do the same for them.

    In order for these types of cash programs to be successful, they would eventually require the active participation of every man, woman, and child in the world. Such participation is, of course, unrealistic. The only ones enriched are those few who are lucky enough to find someone more foolish.

    Other “something-for-nothing” and “too-good-to-be-true” schemes are equally unrealistic.

  2. 2.

    People fail to be honest when they avoid asking questions just because they’re making money and they don’t want to spoil a good thing.

    Mark enjoyed a good reputation as an honest, successful businessman. One day, he was approached by a friend about becoming the president of a new corporation. All Mark had to do was sign a few papers and allow the corporation to use his name as president. He didn’t have to attend any meetings, keep any records, or do any work. For the use of his name on all public documents, he received $2,000.

    Mark didn’t think he should spoil his good fortune by questioning why it was so easy. He didn’t stop to consider that he had been set up and paid off by a man who had a history of bad management and questionable practices. The man squandered the cash in yet another bad business. More than five hundred investors lost the money they had put into the corporation, believing that Mark was its president and counting upon him to manage their money and treat them fairly.

  3. 3.

    People justify dishonesty by thinking they can get away with it for a little while and that somehow everything will work out in the end.

    Raymond began a small carpet-cleaning business. Through creative marketing and hard work, he began to prosper. Soon he needed to expand, and he borrowed money from several banks. When business slowed down, he found it increasingly difficult to pay back his loans, so he went to several investors and raised enough money to stay in business.

    Raymond was a great salesman but not a very astute businessman. He told the investors that he needed the money to buy equipment and build more stores. But he really needed the money to pay off the loans from the bank and to meet his already existing obligations.

    He told himself that taking the investors’ money for his own use was a “loan.” When the investors asked for their money, Raymond lulled them along with promises. He assured them that they would receive their money—and all of their interest—“in just a few more weeks.”

    Raymond had convinced himself that he could still pay them back as soon as the business picked up. He somehow believed that even though the money had long been spent, he could always get it back.

    Even the most conservative investments with honest people have some degree of risk, and the willingness to undertake known risks with honorable people has given birth to and sustained growth in many successful companies and worthwhile projects. But the investor has a right to know the risks involved; a businessman has no legal or moral right to keep the investor from the truth.

  4. 4.

    People justify dishonesty by confusing worldly success with moral success.

    Natalie seemed to have a knack for making money with money. After a while, she could afford to buy bigger and better things. She was flattered to be invited into circles filled with successful people she admired. She loved being numbered among community leaders who earned high incomes and served in positions of trust. She wanted to be like these people and was thrilled that she could afford to resemble them.

    Natalie bought hand-tailored designer clothes and a large luxury car. She bought a larger house and enjoyed exotic vacations. Eventually, when business dealings failed, she began taking clients’ money to maintain her life-style. To keep up appearances, she used other peoples’ money to purchase expensive tickets to professional sports events, the ballet, the symphony, and the opera—because that’s what the people she admired did. Her appetite for the things of this world and the trappings of success turned into greed that could be fed only with stolen money.

The Motivation: To Buy Happiness

As I have examined various investment frauds, I have discovered that no matter how simple or how complicated the scheme or how much money is involved, the motivation for dishonesty is a misguided drive to accumulate more possessions. We live in a materialistic world that constantly bombards us with the false impression that happiness can be bought.

Everywhere we look, we find messages tempting us to believe that possessions bring happiness. We awaken in the morning to the clock radio telling us that our possessions are out of style or not as good as something new on the shelf at the store. Advertisements show us happy actors living carefree lives because they own a certain new and improved product. Television programs display gorgeous actresses jetting around the world in fashionable clothes and expensive jewelry, trying to convince us that “you can’t be too rich.”

A major business publication criticized this misguided drive to buy happiness. In an article entitled “The Gimme Generation,” The Wall Street Journal stated that the search to accumulate more and more possessions has become “almost an end in itself.” The article noted, “We have built pleasure domes of commerce dedicated to the search, great agglomerations of shops under one roof, climate controlled, adorned by trees and fountains that never see the sun, places where some people spend entire days, unashamed. … The bumper stickers say, ‘I Shop, Therefore I Am.’ Nowadays, this is only half a joke.” (13 May 1988, Sec. 3, p. 1.)

Eternal vs. Earthly Wealth

We spend seemingly countless hours earning a living and providing food, clothing, shelter, care, education, and other temporal necessities for ourselves and our loved ones. As we work at our labors, however, we need to remind ourselves constantly that our efforts to pursue temporal comfort cannot become obsessive and cloud our commitment to obtain salvation. We have come to earth to develop our spiritual selves and attain eternal values—not to obtain earthly goods. Honesty may not make us rich in a worldly sense, but it makes us rich in an eternal one. As the Lord said to Joseph Smith, “Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.” (D&C 11:7.)

Happiness cannot be found in the mall or in the fleeting pleasures of worldly luxuries. The Savior taught of our need to focus on the things of eternity instead:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal;

“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (3 Ne. 13:19–21.)

Elder Marvin J. Ashton has stated: “It should be the goal of every Latter-day Saint to become the kind of person of whom it can be said, ‘His word is his bond.’ In all of our words and deeds we should ask ourselves, ‘Is it right? Is it true?’ not ‘Is it expedient, satisfactory, convenient, or profitable?’ Just, ‘Is it right?’ The wise will consider, ‘What is right?’; the greedy, ‘What will it pay?’” (Ensign, May 1982, p. 11.)

Acts of dishonesty not only detour us from our eternal objectives, but may also irreparably harm those we victimize. We lose the trust of our neighbors and invite the scorn of the world.

The key to being honest is to realize that we cannot buy happiness with money or material possessions. Happiness can be “bought” only with righteousness and good works; it comes from cleaving to truth. It cannot be purchased through the fruits of dishonesty.

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26.)

We believe in being honest, not in just professing to believe in being honest. If we are seeking true happiness in the kingdom of God and wish to accumulate the treasures of heaven, our belief requires that we be honest “to the core” in everything we do.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

John C. Baldwin is director of the Utah Securities Division and president of the North American Securities Administrators Association. He and his wife, Diane, are the single-adult chairmen in the Bonneville Second Ward, Salt Lake Bonneville Stake.